Diversity & Inclusion
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This Philly biz leader wants to help Black small businesses with a new accelerator

Donavan West is drawing on years of advising experience to build the new program. "As a community, we are the actual stimulus," he said.

Donavan West speaks at an #OnTheTablePHL discussion in October 2019. (Photo via Facebook)

Bringing years of experience working with small firms, Philadelphia business leader Donavan West is building a new program to help the local small business community: The tentatively-named Black Business Accelerator (not to be confused with Amazon‘s Black Business Accelerator of the same name).

West is still in the development stages of the new accelerator. It will use a cohort model to assist new Black businesses in sharpening their practices and preparing for growth.

West began what is now almost two decades of experience in business consulting and advising in the early 2000s. As West interacted with businesses, he noticed that many did not have the infrastructure needed to succeed in a sustainable way. It became normal for him to provide businesses with support via networking, collaboration and understanding how to increase capacity and scale up.

“I would engage with small businesses and help them with chartering,” he told Technical.ly. “Small groups would charter to enter a small lending circle. It would be character-based startup loans for businesses. What I noticed for businesses was that often we were working on hard and soft skills like communications, marketing and pitching business, and technical skills like developing a business plan, a personnel plan and a cashflow statement.”

During his time as the president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ and DE, West worked to help businesses with their back office support, accountability and case management support that would help them develop at a certain pace. Many small businesses, he found, had no employees and were the work of solo entrepreneurs. That made succession planning and subsequent generational wealth difficult to establish.

“Succession planning is missing from the small business arena,” he said. “The majority of small businesses don’t have human resources, legal accounting and all those components to make sure they are solid. It’s always been a concern of mine to identify the goals, gifts and talents of larger corporations and smaller practitioners.”

West plans to create opportunities for small businesses through his network, provide greater access to capital, information, resources and advocacy.

With the Black Business Accelerator, West plans to create opportunities for small businesses through his network, provide greater access to capital, information, resources and advocacy when possible. Helping keep businesses accountable for maintaining a high standard of business practices also matters to him.

“I think [accountability] is what’s missing right now,” he said. “A lot of businesses operate but no one is holding them accountable.”

West said that accountability for businesses includes things like crisis management, critical thinking and emotional intelligence —all valuable tools for any business owner to possess that aren’t frequently mentioned.

“These are components that people don’t talk about [that] directly affect your leadership and the trajectory of your business,” he said.

The pandemic ravaged small businesses across the country, and West noted that it was all but impossible to stop that damage. Looking at ways in which to strategize for the future as business owners is something he believes can be recommended more. At the same time, access to capital can be difficult to obtain for Black business owners, and having good relationships and being familiar with resources like CDFIs can present an effective solution.

“A lot of relationship issues happened before COVID,” he said. “The whole idea of a trusted messenger is so significant because this was an economic [Hurricane] Katrina. People weren’t on the roof because they weren’t warned, but they didn’t trust who warned them.”

With recovery, he also sees room to grow.

“Use this as an opportunity to change behaviors,” he added. “As a community, we are the actual stimulus if we change our overall behavior.”

West’s current focus for the BBA is building its platform. He is in the initial stage of developing relationships with organizations such as The Enterprise Center and The Urban League for technical assistance. Details are forthcoming about when the accelerator will launch and how professionals can apply for participation.

“[I have] a few partnerships with other accelerators,” he said. “My goal is not to be an actual physical space. I want to be the programming component of them. [With] entrepreneurs today, the majority are in the digital space. I don’t necessarily want to create a hub but there are people that have physical accelerators. I’m excited to see it happening.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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